Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Lady is a Tramp

Some time between 1 AM and 2 AM, our air conditioner quit working. It was miserable. I even got up and went to the front desk for help, but the guy there knew even less about the air conditioner than I did. In the morning I insisted they fix it before tonight—about 9 PM they finally got it fixed! We’re basking in the coolness (can you bask in anything except heat?).

Our plan was to go to the Postal Museum, one of the top five picks in the Cairo Family Guide book we bought. At the corner, though, Ed’s nose started bleeding, a result, I’m convinced, of his being in a too-hot room for so many hours. Ruth and Sam took Isaac to the museum, and the rest of us took Ed back to the hotel to recover. About half an hour later we tried again. We got to the second corner before the nosebleed started again, so we decided to skip the whole outing.

Ruth and Sam and Isaac enjoyed the museum. It had exhibits about the history of postal services. There were displays of mail carrier uniforms and of taxidermied carrier pigeons. Their favourite thing, however, happened as they were leaving. A very nattily dressed post office employee (the museum is above a post office) stopped to chat with them. After a few minutes, he asked, “Would you like to see the room with our valuable stamps?” They had racks and racks of wonderful, valuable, and old stamps, sorted by country. Ruth and Sam said it was very fun to look through them.

On the way to the museum, they ran into some employees from “our” kushari restaurant out on the sidewalk. “Isaac!” they called. A few minutes later, Ruth noticed that Isaac kept looking over his shoulder. She asked what he was doing. He was looking for Sharif, his teenage street vendor friend who makes such a fuss over him! Luckily, on the way home, Sharif was there, so Isaac got to see him. Ironically, in the evening, we ran into Sharif and his friend on a completely different street; they were on their way home from the cinema. When Isaac saw Sharif, he dropped our hands, grabbed Sharif’s and started off with him!

When Ruth, Sam, and Isaac got back from the museum, we decided that we needed a nearby, highly air-conditioned place for lunch if we had any hopes of getting Ed back into the land of the living. So we went to our nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken. We’re getting kind of sick of Kentucky Fried chicken (and in Cairo! who would have thought), but sometimes circumstances force your hand. And they had a highlights reel going from last night’s very exciting World Cup games, so I got to see the best parts of the games even without making the effort to watch them.

While the kids napped (in our uncomfortably warm room), I ventured onto the streets to reserve plane tickets. We are very used to doing our airline booking online in both Europe and the US, but in Africa it doesn’t work that way. In fact, you can’t really even buy plane tickets at the airport. You have to go to airline offices in the city to book your flights. And some airlines won’t even let you pay with credit cards. It’s a strangely different task than it is elsewhere! I have tentative reservations for us on two airlines, so I can go back and buy one set of tickets when we actually have the visas.

On my way back, I stopped at some clothing stores to look at women’s clothing, and I even tried on a couple of skirts. To my surprise, they were quite a lot too big for me, and they were the smallest ones the store had.

Everyone in the US and Europe who has advised us on clothes for sub-Saharan Africa has told us to be sure to stick with natural fibers like cotton and linen. And I agree that my 100 percent cotton things are by far the most comfortable. Yet, the clothes Egyptian women wear (and the clothes in the Egyptian stores I’ve looked at) are largely synthetic. I’m also surprised by how many layers women wear. The stores have lots of short-sleeved or strappy, knee-length sundresses for sale, and we see women on the street wearing them, but always as the top layer over a long (as in the hem turning black from brushing along the sidewalk) skirt or long, bell-bottom pants and at least one blouse with long sleeves to cover the arms, sometimes a second blouse with a high neck to cover the chest adequately. That and at least two veils pinned around the head. And that’s not even the most extreme women. The seriously covered-up women wear only black and cover all their skin except for that around their eyes—if they’re wearing sandals they wear toe socks and they wear gloves over their hands and they have a third veil that covers the bottom half of their face. Some of them wear glasses, so all you see is veil and glasses. Even Egyptian women who don’t wear the veil almost always wear long sleeved blouses. And it’s hot!

Teenage girls often wear T-shirts with English writing on it over their long-sleeved and high-necked shirts. We never see T-shirts with Arabic writing on it (except for sale at the American University in Cairo bookstore—they obviously know their market as I had just been complaining to the kids that if I were to buy a T-shirt I’d want one with Arabic writing). The English is often just a little bit off, Engrish, as the kids put it. One of the young women who works at the hotel here wore a T-shirt one day that said, “Use it or Lost it.” Tonight I saw one emblazoned with “Yes or Not.” But my all-time favourite was one where the English was just fine. The girl who wore it also wore a long hijab that went halfway down her back, a long-sleeved, high-necked shirt under the T-shirt, and a loose, long skirt that went all the way down to the ground and hid her feet. The T-shirt read, “The lady is a tramp.” I have a feeling that colloquial English was not her long suit.

So, after that little fashion excursion, back to our day. We were very excited to go to the National Circus, which was well reviewed in two of our guidebooks. We found a Nubian restaurant near it, so we took a taxi there and ate dinner (good food that, by and large, could be described as chunks of meat in a gravy-like sauce, just as David had described his typical Juba fare to us). I thought I had read somewhere that we should avoid fresh juices for health reasons (the hygiene of the juicer?), but now we can’t find any such passage, and David has been drinking the fresh juices without any troubles, so the kids and I are enjoying trying them now. We got guava juice and orange juice and lemon juice (sweetened) with our dinner. They were wonderful! Our favourite part of dinner, actually.

We wandered around the neighbourhood for a while because the circus wasn’t scheduled to start till 10:00 (very Egyptian; things start cooling down around then). Had a nice conversation with a friendly grocery store owner who sold us water. We got stared at quite a lot; it was not a touristy area. Finally we made our way over to the circus. At the ticket office, a severe-looking grandma, dressed all in black, spoke to us earnestly, gesturing a lot, and then she walked away. Eventually we figured out that they aren’t doing the circus this week. We felt a bit better when we saw an Egyptian family approach the ticket office and get the same news. They let us go in and look at their ring and their tent at least. But we’re all disappointed that we don’t get to see the circus.

We bought ice cream cones as a consolation on the way home. And we felt happy that both our taxi rides there and back were largely unremarkable. Maybe we’re getting the hang of this taxi thing. And our air conditioner was fixed when we got back to our room.

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